Franciscan Spirit Blog

Climate Change in Franciscan Ministry: Danger or Opportunity?

Not all climate changes apply to the weather. Some are societal.The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports that in the US there were about half as many religious priests (those in Orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits) in 2017 as in 1970. The shrinking number of religious sisters is more dramatic. Roughly 80% of current religious women are 70 years old or older, 45% are 80 years or older, and by 2024 it is predicted that there will only be 6900 sisters under 70.

Over the last 20 years, the number of parochial schools with religious teachers has shrunk, many Franciscan hospitals shut down, while others integrated into large Catholic systems (e.g. Trinity Health and Ascension Health), and Franciscan universities increasingly have lay leadership. Thus, there are fewer Franciscan religious heading Franciscan ministries; and like planetary climate change some people are in denial that this is happening and thus disinterested in taking action.

These changes in leadership create a danger that the Franciscan charism (gifts) may disappear. Ministries may be shut down, or sadly, the value system and gifts imbued by the vowed religious could simply vaporize. Alternatively, this phenomenon can be viewed as an opportunity for the laity to step up and lean in.

We, the laity, need the wisdom of the priests and sisters currently engaged. They have institutional history, and their life experience gives them a wealth of wisdom about how to lead organizations true to the Franciscan worldview. The laity brings different talents and gifts to the table, and many of us want to work in organizations where we can serve others and enjoy meaningful lives. Thus, what will it take for these ministries to live on inculturated with the Franciscan worldview?

It will take a variety of factors, including good hiring, great training, accountability, and fellowship. Some congregations have done an incredible job of institutionalizing and transitioning their ministries to lay leaders. My research in 2018 on this issue showed that some religious congregations feel overwhelmed and less able to muster the resources necessary for this transition from religious to lay leadership.

The Padua Program was created to meet the need to train both laypersons and active religious serving in mission integration roles. The program is pragmatic and concrete, supporting the building of a community of professionals dedicated to Franciscan mission integration. The current nine-month program is a first step, addressing the skills required to lead and orchestrate Franciscan Mission Integration.

Inculcating and operationalizing the Franciscan charism into ministries is multi-faceted. It requires a clear sense of mission that is communicated and lived out at all levels of the organization, from the board of directors, through all positions, from the president to the janitorial staff. It requires systems, processes, training, and evaluation tools that reflect the value system, and spirituality of Francis and Clare. Today, the Padua Program is focused on developing Mission Integration leaders; over time, it hopes to offer shorter programs for boards of directors and senior leaders.

Research shows that culture change and innovation are often better motivated by fear. I prefer the more positive opportunity-based framing that inspires cooperation between lay and religious leaders without fear-based motives, but out of love for what Francis and Clare stood for. The religious congregations need to encourage the laity, and lay leaders need to step up and learn that these two medieval saints still have a lot to teach us.

For more information on the Padua Program, which will begin in September 2019, click the image below!

Padua Program


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign Up for Our Daily Newsletter​

Includes Saint of the Day, Minute Meditations, and Pause + Pray.

Skip to content